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Episode 68: Choosing the right technology for your business

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

There’s old school. There’s forward thinking. Mix ‘em all together and you get a glimpse inside the mind of editor in chief of finder.com.au, Angus Kidman. Definitely a good place to be, especially on this latest Xero Gravity podcast, where Angus shares his thoughts on choosing the right technology for your small business.

Tune in and you’ll get Angus’s take on the ways standard, mass market is better than specialized technology, with all of its bells and whistles; how the need for computer to phone compatibility (and vise versa) is coming to an end, thanks to the cloud, and why processor memory is so, so very important.

All that plus answers to the merchant payment puzzle, the beautiful simplicity of contactless credit cards, and how your employees and customers play into all of this. 

Xero Gravity 68. Be there!

Small Business Resources:

Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Angus Kidman [AK]

EÜ: Hi everyone, I'm Elizabeth Ü and this is Xero Gravity.

Meet Angus Kidman. He's the editor-in-chief at finder.com.au, which is Australia's leading technology comparison website. Now Angus knows just about everything there is to know about IT. If there's electricity running through it, he knows about it.

He's a firm believer that choosing the right technology for your business begins with knowing your employees, and that includes both what they’ll be doing and how they like to work.

Well thanks so much for joining us on Xero Gravity.

AK: My pleasure, my absolute pleasure.

EÜ: So I have a question for you because, here you are, a technology expert: what kind of computer do you use and what kind of phone do you use? Like PC or Mac, or something else?

AK: I live in the PC, Android slice of the world. So yes, I have a nice Lenovo ThinkPad, which I've been using those for about six years because they're really resilient. So like if you drop them, they don't break. I found that surprisingly important in my life is to have something that's not going to smash the first time I get rid of it.

On the phone front I'm using a Samsung Note 5. Wasn't quite ready to make the move to the Note 7. And given that the Note 7 had all these very well documented catching fire issues recently I'm kind of glad that I hung back from doing the upgrade at this point. For me those are just the sort of technologies I’ve been familiar with, so I've tended to stick with them.

EÜ: I'm actually surprised and amazed rather, to hear you say that you've had the same computer for six years. Isn't something completely obsolete and Neanderthal at that point?

AK: Oh no, I should be clear I’ve got the same model but I've been through two or three of them in that time. So…

EÜ: Oh, there you go.

AK: Yeah but actually, having said that, I don't find it impossible to imagine that I could use a machine for four or five years on the trot because we have hit a point, we really have hit a point where even a fairly cheap computer is still going to do most of what you need to do. Processors are so good now that unless you're doing something extraordinarily complex, unless you're trying to write video games or unless you're trying to you know, edit really complicated video, I think you can get a really good life span out of these things. We can go longer than the sort of two years that we tend to think about with technology.

EÜ: Well and that was the next question I was going to ask you is, how frequently are you dropping your machines?

AK: I've gotten better. I've learned to like put them in better cases. If your machine is just sitting on the desk in the office, you know, the risk is pretty low. But these days we don't do that anymore because everybody has laptops. And so sometimes you go, right, “I’m sick of being in the office, I'm just lounging around on the couch.” That's a dangerous one. Laptop on your lap, fall asleep, goes flying.

EÜ: [Laughter] That's great advice. The very first day I got my Xero issued iPad I dropped it at a right angle to the desk drawer, the metal desk drawer right under it and miraculously the thing did not crack. But I did, I don't even know how this is possible, I guess it's that new gorilla glass, but I did dent the edge and I dented the glass itself, but it did not crack. So I was very lucky and the IT guy told me, Keith if you're listening, thank you. He said he would pretend he hadn't seen me do that.

AK: [Laughter]

EÜ: So how important do you think it is to have some sort of compatibility between your phone and your computer? Especially given how much of everything that we do now is in the cloud.

AK: Yeah actually, you know what, I don't think it matters nearly as much as it once did. I think it's far more important to have a device you’re happy with on both sides of the equation.

And I think the cloud is the reason for that because back when we had to synchronize these things carefully, and the way that you got information onto your phone was by plugging it into your computer, it was essential to have that match up. I mean for several generations, the iPhone, the only way to sort of get it started was that you actually had to connect it to a computer and they had to connect it to iTunes. And you wouldn't do that if you're a Windows user because iTunes for Windows has always been a shocking dog of a program. Nothing has changed.

So that doesn't work out. But once you no longer had that physical connection that was required and the way that you set up either your iPhone or your Android—
if you just sign in and then it pulls everything in hopefully over your local wifi network — then I really don't think that matters. It doesn't have to be the kind of almost religious decision that it used to be in the past, that, where you in camp A or camp B, I think at this point you can grab things out of whatever camp you like.

EÜ: Well it’s funny and that's been my experience as well. Although I will confess...the one point where I feel like it does make a difference which platform you're on is when you're listening to music. And I know that so many people, whether you're a small business owner or staff person or employee of a larger company, we're all using our company technology now for our personal computing as well. And for a lot of us that means how we're listening to music.

AK: Yeah, so music is definitely probably the most interesting challenge. You know, if you’ve committed to the iTunes ecosystem, it's quite hard to get those playlists outside of the Apple space, and impossible on a Chromebook I would think, unless you were a real masochist and prepared to spend a lot of time trying to work it out.

And you don't want to do that because music is for pleasure, it's not something you should have to work at, when you go through that phase. But that's becoming an outdated way of listening to music. Increasingly people aren't actually moving around files that they like. They're you know, they’re signing up for Spotify and Apple Music, and with a streaming service, it doesn't matter.

I must admit because I've been into music for long enough that like I have collection of thousands of CDs, all of which have been carefully ripped. And an awful lot of that stuff still isn't available on any of the streaming platforms. So if I want to listen to my favorite music I have to do it myself. I think the secret there is to reject all the platforms. So I literally just store things as files and instead of directories that I set up myself. So I don't rely on having iTunes manage it, I don't rely on having Google Play Music manage it. I do it myself and that works really well for me but, you know, I'm a geek. I don't mind going into that level – a lot of people don’t want to…

EÜ: So you're just literally using the folder structure on your PC and calling it good?

AK: Yeah, yeah. So if I've got a different device out I just plug the drive into that and pull up the music from that and for me, that's worked out to be the right solution and one that's relatively technology agnostic. So they’re a lot more agnostic than committing to sort of one of the existing you know, buy your own music file platforms.

EÜ: As technology has been changing though and as we see new compression options, have you had to go back and re-rip all one thousand of your CDs? Or do you just go along with, I don't know what you chose, the first time around?

AK: I went relatively high end but I'm not an audiophile. I was not one of these people who was going to say, right I need all my music to be in FLAC files and completely lossless. I just never saw the point because the environment to run some of the music — there will be other challenges in place anyway. So for me, I'm not audiophile, if people are audiophiles then they would be going through all those processes.

But for me, I picked a recent, you know, a good sort of standard level of rip and I've never found that to be a problem and I've stuck with that for years now. And even though now storage is cheap and I could probably go for higher quality and have some room, I just, I'm like happy and, you know, it's works out well enough for me. So good luck to all the audio obsessives, but I'm not going to be joining them.

EÜ: I'm making this assumption that most people are getting their technology through work or small business owners are making that choice on behalf of their staff. So do you think that's true?

AK: I think it's changed – again, I think it’s shifted. I think that historically the technology you needed to work with would be supplied to you by work. I grew up through the era where, you know, I expected to get subsidized for my... if I had a mobile phone I was using it for work, I would expect work to pay for part of that bill. Nobody does that now. People show up at work, they've got their mobile phones and you just use them. I mean in the Finder office where I work, there's no phones on anybody's desk. That distinction has been completely blurred and I think that reflects what goes on in technology choices, particularity at that phone level.

When you're talking about the, you know, the laptop, or the tablet I think yes there's an assumption that your employer should supply that but it can be more of a dialogue now.

EÜ: So is the burden then of technical support on the people who are using the technology or is it on the employers who are providing it?

AK: Well, you raise a very good point because that is the consequence. The consequence is if you say, okay you can use what you like, it may also become that, okay, the level of tech support we going to supply to you is going to be a bit restricted.

EÜ: Well, and then not only is the onus of technical support, but also the onus of choosing the correct technology in the first place is more on the employee. Or, you know, we talk a lot about the freelance economy here at Xero as well, and so many people are now working as contractors and not necessarily as formal staff of any other organization or business. But what mistakes do you think that people are making when it comes to choosing the right technology for themselves? Given that this is more and more the scenario nowadays.

AK: Yeah it is, yeah, very, you’re right, people can trip up because you’re either making the wrong choice or you're trying to work out, “Well, what am I going to do for my employees?” I think there can be a tendency to overspend, there can be this thing, of saying, “Oh yeah I must have, you know, this, all the bells and whistles computer sitting in front of me.” Very often that's not necessary. Sometimes the most sensible thing to do is to say, "Right well I’ve got – this is my budget, that's it. What can I get for that?"

I think the biggest mistake — like on a really geeky kind of level — people tend to get, still, obsessed a bit about, “Oh what's the processor in this machine, like how fast does that work?” And they don't think about memory. And memory is actually far more important in terms of how performance goes nowadays. I'd always say, “Spend more money on the memory upfront because you'll really notice the difference when you're running a well of apps.”

EÜ: Well thank you for that tip. And what about the other kinds of technology that small businesses are using — what other types of technology do you see being most prevalent?

AK: Well it’s interesting – it’s interesting that the specialization of this technology has actually decreased a bit. There was a time when yes, every small business said “Okay, I'm going to have to invest in whatever kind of point of sale equipment that I'm going to need.” These days, increasingly, you know, if I was starting a new business, I'd be resisting buying a point-of-sale terminal and I’d be saying, “Can I incorporate this into, you know, a tablet, or something like that? Can I make that interface and just use standardized hardware there that’s flexible rather than being locked into something that's highly specific?”

So if you get these general purpose devices then, it can be very helpful.

EÜ: Right, right. So I'm assuming that you're talking about, say an iPad plus something like a square reader. Is that true?

AK: Yes, yeah, taking those sorts of combinations and looking at them. Partly the reason for this is just when things go wrong it's easier to get a replacement. Especially for businesses that are in retail and, you know, that are actually dealing with customers at that constant level. It’s, you know, I think that reliability really plays at just that sense of, okay well I can get this dealt with.

That's the other benefit is that ultimately this mass market's hardware is going to be cheaper to install than something that’s highly specialized, because, you know, it has to be developed that way and cheaper, but it will have larger margins applied to it. So the more you could use fairly standard equipment rather than buying things that are highly specialized, you know, the less you're going to have to invest in technology which leaves you free to, you know, make other investment choices for your business.

EÜ: Right, and I'm really glad you brought up this concept of cost because I, as you may or may not know, I have an undying devotion to helping small businesses save costs so that they can focus on what they do best.

And one of the things that you've recently written is an interesting piece about is this concept of choosing to refuse to accept certain payment methods either because it's costly to the small business or because of the cost of accepting that payment method.

AK: Yeah, it’s an interesting area and it's one where businesses do have to tread really carefully because from a perceptual level, if a customer comes in and they want to buy a service or a product from you, there's no use saying, well, you can only do it in certain way. And for lots of businesses especially in retail that's the approach they take, they’re like, we’ll accept, you know, whatever…

EÜ: Everything.

AK: We'll accept everything. At the same time you do have to be realistic about the costs to you and the cost of some payment methods can be really high. You can be facing significant merchant fees for using credit cards, particularly certain types of credit cards. And you can…

EÜ: Is that why so many small businesses don't accept American Express?

AK: Yeah, so the classic, the big classic example of all those are American Express and Diners Club, which is still actually a thing.

EÜ: I had no idea.

AK: You will very often see that there is a surcharge for using those particular cards. If the business is selling thousands and thousands of dollars it might be prepared to wear the transaction costs because the overall business is profitable, but if the transaction itself is relatively small, but then your provider perhaps is charging you a fixed fee plus a percentage, you very may well hit the point of going, “Hang on, this really isn't going to work for me.” So at that point you need to assess the numbers and work out, “Well, should I be accepting all these payment methods?” And I mean, this varies from business culture to business culture.

I think, the best way for businesses to approach it is if they do want to restrict what the options are because of cost reasons. Then the logical thing to do is to try and make that a benefit to the customer.

If you can try to think of a positive for people, if you're a coffee shop... I went to a coffee shop recently in Australia where you could only pay with a contactless credit card — you couldn't pay with anything else.

EÜ: Oh wow!

There must be times when someone does come in and say, “Hang on, I've only got cash and I can't pay for this.” But I don't think it will be that common and I think word would spread and they actually had signage on the counter so they’ve sort of made that clear.

In the odd case, you can deal with those on a case-by-case basis. If I was making coffee and someone came in they’d just ordered a coffee, I'd maybe say, “Well look, sorry, that's our policy but, you know, this time just have one on us.” You could actually win yourself a customer that way, it might be an interesting form of marketing.

AK: So easier with coffee than with some other goods because coffee is relatively inexpensive to give one away, but I think yeah, if businesses can think about how they take those payments and how they use technology to take those payments differently. You don't necessarily have to stick to, oh well, we do it this way because everybody else does it that way. You have to be mindful of your competitors. You have to go, “Okay, well how easy is it for someone to go somewhere else and get this same service?” You've got to factor all those things in but, yeah, it's worth thinking about and you can both improve the customer experience and also cut your costs.”

EÜ: As far as trends that you're seeing, is there any type of technology that you're seeing becoming more and more popular that you wish more people knew about because it's really making a small business’s life easier?

AK: I still think, with small businesses I don't know that it’s a matter of coming up with the new exciting, emerging thing. It’s just a matter of spending some time thinking about it, because I often get the impression when I deal with small businesses, they get into a position where, “I've got this it works, and I'm either too busy or too scared to change it.” I went recently to a sort of convenience store in Australia. I was looking at, you know, I just saw the computer system behind the counter and it was still – it wasn't even running Windows. It was running DOS. It was like this green screen monstrosity…

EÜ: I had a very similar experience recently. I'm thinking, it is going to be an enormous cost to this company, that's nationwide, to replace the technology and retrain everyone, like three new iterations of interface? When it all comes time to do that, it's going to happen.

AK: It's going to happen and it doesn't get any easier. Like the longer the distance, the worse it gets, and the more unreliable and expensive it gets because at this point if you're running those older versions even of Windows, you're paying a big support bill for that because it's not officially supported at all. And at that point, no matter how scary it might seem to make the transition, the risk of not doing is so much higher. And sometimes you've really just got to, you know, you’ve got to think right, “I'm just going to run up to the end of the pier and dive into the freezing cold water and it's going to be appalling for a few seconds, but then in the end when I surface again, I'll hope that I know actually what I'm doing.” So again, that metaphor didn't really go anywhere because it's sounded like someone was going to drown but…

EÜ: [Laughs] No but I think I get your point. I just downloaded the iOS 10.1 update and I wasn't sure if my phone was going to get bricked or not, but I'm the kind of person who, I want to download those updates as soon as I can. You got to rip the Band-Aid off sooner rather than later because eventually you're going to have to update your technology.

Well and then on the other side of that coin, what is the most forward thinking thing that you've ever seen somebody do?” And you're like, “Wow I need to adopt that as far as how I'm looking at technology.”

AK: Ah, I like that coffee shop one. I really did like that notion of saying “Let's just really streamline things down, stop, yeah, let's just not let people pay by the other method, let's really speed that up.”

EÜ: They did a really great job of identifying their niche, in terms of, “This is the type of customer we want and it's going to make everyone's experience better.” So I mean that, I think is one of the things that a lot of small businesses that are doing well have recognized is that, the more you can narrow down your ideal customer, the better you're going to be able to serve their needs. And so that is a great example of that and using technology to do that with the, what did you call it? Touch-less cards?

AK: Yes, contact – contactless cards.

EÜ: So and this is different than, I mean I’m familiar with Apple Pay and Android Pay. But it sounds like this is the card itself.

AK: Yeah, the card itself. So it’s exactly the same concept. It uses exactly the same thing, but it's just literally you just tap the card on the reader and it accepts the payment. It’s in the Australian market and it's a massive thing. It’s like yeah, and it just hasn't rolled out at the same speed in other markets. It's also a very big deal in parts of Europe. It's not as big a deal in the States. I mean I was in the States recently. It was quite frustrating because I'd been paying with my credit card and I'd actually have to stick it in the machine. I was cheap so it was real, real quick, and I didn't have to put in a pin, but I was like, I should be able to wave this, this transaction should be over. I shouldn't be standing in this Walgreens for any longer than is strictly necessary but, you know, it's just…

EÜ: You know, it's so fascinating to see how these different technologies roll out around the world.

I can't wait to see contactless cards here in the US as well.

AK: Yeah, they have emerged a little bit. It's happening. I could imagine a business somewhere say, in San Francisco saying, right well we're only going to take Android Pay and Apple Pay. In fact I think you’d get written up in all the tech blogs, so I think you’d do really well out of it.

EÜ: I'm sure it exists, I’m just not cool enough to go to those establishments.

AK: I think in that case you can make a virtue out of saying, “Hey, we've eliminated this.” And obviously, that's simplified other aspects of that business. That's made life simpler for them because they're no longer having to deal with change, they're not saying, “I haven't got a float here, how often does someone have to go down to the bank.” That whole process has just completely disappeared.

EÜ: Well thank you so much. This really has been a fun conversation, I quite enjoyed myself and I look forward to digging into some of your Life Hacker tips as well.

AK: No worries.

EÜ: That was Angus Kidman, editor-in-chief at finder.com.au. Thanks for joining us on Xero Gravity. Be sure to join us next time as we'll be talking with Amit Mathradas from PayPal about the power of intrapreneurialism to transform business. That's intrapreneurialism. Have a great week and we'll catch you then.

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